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Same-Sex-Marriage Follies


Victory in hand, the Gillites started working on their real goal. After O’Byrne, the gay former Jesuit priest, was forced out of his public role in a tax scandal in October 2008, he began advising Gill behind the scenes.

Lobbyist Patricia Lynch, a ferociously competitive fixer, was brought onboard also. She’d just come off losing the congestion-pricing effort because she couldn’t convince enough outer-borough Democrats to swallow new tolls. This was her chance to win something just as big—if not bigger. Lynch’s firm was paid $10,000 a month for the contract. And they set to work.

Albany, though, is a culture of relentless opportunism. Just after the successful election, four Democrats rebelled against Smith. One of them was Rubén Díaz Sr., a Pentecostal Puerto Rican from the Bronx and passionate opponent of gay marriage. Gay money had helped the Democrats win, but that didn’t mean all Democrats were willing to do its bidding. By the first week of January of this year, Smith had made a deal with Díaz to keep his power. A source familiar with the discussions says Smith and Díaz came to an understanding that same-sex marriage wouldn’t be voted on in 2009.

Smith’s public position would be that they needed 32 committed votes before he’d let it go to the floor. As 2009 dawned, Van Capelle at the Pride Agenda started methodically assembling those 32. With the issue apparently on the back burner for the session, few Democrats had taken a position against it. Ten or so were officially undecided. From the point of view of the same-sex marriage advocates, the quiet was an advantage. They could wage a stealth campaign.

But then Paterson decided it had to happen—immediately. Reeling from his disastrous handling of Caroline Kennedy’s Senate bid, budget protests, and disarray within his offices, Paterson had seen his job-approval rating crumble to 19 percent. The governor was searching for a comeback, and gay marriage was going to help him get there.

When they heard about Paterson’s updated schedule for their carefully wrought plans, Duane, Van Capelle, and O’Byrne were all taken by surprise. It meant making sure Duane and Van Capelle had garnered the votes by June 22, the final day of session. “They didn’t think the groundwork was laid.” says an insider. The governor, however, was convinced that after victories in Iowa and Vermont, they needed to capitalize on the national momentum. Paterson announced the bill from his midtown office on April 16. “We have a crisis of leadership” he declared. “We’re going to fill that vacuum today.” Smith didn’t attend the press conference.

On April 28, the Pride Agenda filled the Convention Center next to the state capitol with supporters and balloons for its annual rally. (“It’s like a Madonna concert!” said Van Capelle.) Paterson got a standing ovation.

On May 12, the Assembly passed the bill for the second time. The tally was heartening to Lynch. The yes votes increased to 89; two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent switched.

The night of the vote, the bill’s sponsor, Danny O’Donnell, brother of Rosie O’Donnell, invited lawmakers to the 74 State Hotel’s mahogany-and-brass bar to celebrate his engagement to John Banta, the director of special events for the Metropolitan Opera. Harlem assemblyman Keith Wright, dressed in basketball shorts, greeted O’Donnell with a hug: “I don’t dance with boys, but I’ll dance with you,” Wright cracked.

In the middle of the room sat a gloomy pack of Senate Democrats who happened by after a Senate alumni dinner. Lucky for them, there was an open bar. But they didn’t feel so lucky thinking about the marriage bill coming due. Foley, whom Gill had helped elect, preferred civil unions. “It’s all about 2010,” he said that night. The advocates “want to go for the golden crown. It would imperil the majority.”

Assembly Democrats had the luxury of a 109-to-41 advantage. A quarter of the conference voted against marriage, and it still passed. At the party, Van Capelle, in his Hugo Boss suit and polka-dot tie, asked several of the senators for their help on the bill. He apparently got a tepid response. “I’m not taking responsibility for this failure,” one of the senators recalls thinking.

The Senate bill had only nineteen sponsors—all Democrats. The one hint of GOP support came from Jim Alesi, a laundry entrepreneur from Rochester, who suggested to a newspaper that he might be a yes, then later said he was undecided.

At least seven Democrats were opposed. One was Ruth Hassell-Thompson, an African-American whose mother and sister are Baptist ministers; she represents a racially gerrymandered district that snakes from Mount Vernon in Westchester down around the Bronx Zoo. She “supported giving gay couples equal rights but had a real problem with the word marriage,” says a colleague. Another was George Onorato, 80, a retired bricklaying union official, who insisted his district, which includes Astoria and Long Island City, did not want gay marriage. Except that these days it’s become pretty gay. “He’s out of touch. He’s representing the community that existed 30 years ago,” says a colleague.

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